History has been on show the past two weeks at the nation’s two great political conventions. These convocations are more than a circus, a charade and a spectacle fronting for a corrupt political establishment. They are gatherings of a nation. They display in two vast auditoriums its values and virtues, common causes and uncommon diversity.
The distinctly different ways in which history was in evidence during the two conventions tell us more than does anything else what these two parties are and how they relate to the America they represent. No matter how cynical we become about our dysfunctional politics, these conventions still represent, as they always have, a significant moment when our entire nation takes stock of itself—where we have come from, where we are and where we are going.
The foundation stone, the keystone arch of our quadrennial effort to assess ourselves, is our history and our uses of it. History is not a static constant but, to use Hemingway’s term, a movable feast. If you can see almost anything in history, what you do choose to see tells a lot about who you are.
The Republican National Convention was ahistorical—an event apart from history—in a way that no other convention has ever been. No former presidents or presidential candidates spoke or were present, none were quoted, described or praised, with the exception of passing references to Ronald Reagan. It was left to the Democrats, of all people, to quote repeatedly and at length Republicans Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Reagan himself. Despite the GOP being the party of ideological constitutional originalism, it was left to a Democratic speaker from Iraq to hold up a copy of the U.S. Constitution and to other Democratic speakers to quote the Declaration of Independence.
The Republican Convention thus had the curious aspect of an event out of time, unanchored in the past. This impression was not merely cosmetic, nor was it due solely to the absence of the congeries of living and dead presidents, presidential candidates and vice presidents. It was due even more to its unique policies and rhetoric. With the focus on potential horrors, there were only the vaguest references to the kind of America the Republicans would like to create after having been out of power for 16 of the past 24 years (and without electing a President they were willing to brag about in 32 years). Thus it is fair to say, I believe, that not only did many attendees at the GOP convention feel that they had abandoned history; they felt that history had abandoned them.
This ahistorical approach prepared them to launch into a brave new world without their traditional anchors in policy: free trade, low taxes, high defense spending, low government budgets for infrastructure, reduced government regulation (Donald Trump even supports government restrictions on fracking) and social programs, an internationalist foreign policy (with emphasis on opposing Russia and supporting global democracy and capitalism) and military activism abroad. Whether in the wake of its convention the GOP still stood for any of these policies—or for that matter for their opposites—was as Churchill would have said, a riddle inside a mystery.
When you don’t have history, you don’t have identity. Because the Republican Party chose to leave history at the convention door, its identity today is, literally, unimaginable.
The Democrats have, if anything, the opposite problem: too much history. Labor unions and free trade, cold and hot wars, recessions and depression have been the foreground of Democratic governance since Roosevelt told Americans the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. How much of this history is relevant today and how much is a ball and chain dragging the party down?
Democrats have a lot more history to build upon than do Republicans. But what kind of history? Is their history a solid base to build the party of the future or rather a trap it needs to find a way to escape from? Is change or continuity the appropriate rallying cry for Democrats? Judging by her culminating speech at the Democratic convention, Hillary Clinton would like to have it both ways, urging change while pleading for continuity.
The ahistorical attitude of the GOP convention was probably not the product of carefully contrived strategy. Rather it was the result of their priorities. They chose to reject most of the policies of Eisenhower, Nixon, the Bushes and even Reagan (who raised taxes twice and pursued an end to nuclear weapons), leaving the GOP without a history. It is an historical anomaly that the most famous sentence ever uttered by GOP hero Reagan was, “Tear down this wall,” while the iconic slogan of Trump is “Build this wall.”
The ahistorical oddness of the Republican convention is directly attributable to what in Latin America is called “personalismo.” The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines this Spanish term as “the practice of glorifying a single leader, with the resulting subordination of the interests of political parties and ideologies and of constitutional government.” No other word so well describes the impact of Trump on the Republican Party and its convention. The GOP ceased to be an institution. Part of it, the part that represented such historical artifacts as presidents, policies, ideologies and constitutional principles, simply disappeared, to be supplanted by the oversized image of an actor and real estate magnate dominating the small screen through an energetic exercise of pure personality.
Until now, personalismo has been monopolized by countries without a democratic tradition, ones which have either surrendered to dictatorship or who are struggling to find their footing as newly freed colonies. For personalismo to take over a major party in a long-established democracy (in fact the world’s second-oldest democracy, after Switzerland) marks a historical precedent.
So this election presents two interesting but very different questions for the two parties. Can the Democrats find a way to reconcile their long and complex history with the very different demands of today? And can the Republicans find an uncharted path outside of history?